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Transcript of joint remarks: Melbourne: 22 January 2016: Burke and Wills site heritage listing

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The Hon. Greg Hunt MP Minister for the Environment


22 January 2016



Topics: Burke and Wills site heritage listing

GREG HUNT: Thank you to the Royal Society for hosting today. We moved from Royal Park to the Royal Society, and I actually think we've ended up in the best possible place.

I want to acknowledge basically everybody in the room in their own way - from the Australian Heritage Council, Dr David Kemp, Professor Don Garden, Lyndon Ormond-Parker, who's one of our esteemed Indigenous representatives, we have from the Royal Society with Dr William Birch as President, and really the glitterati of the Royal Society.

And this room of course goes back to 1859, when the building was constructed.

Much of the Burke and Wills expedition was planned in this very room.

And I wasn't aware but I was informed by Bill that they lay in state in this room, that when their remains were returned many, many Victorians inspected the [inaudible], and this is such a central part of the story.

I very particularly want to welcome Leslie Harris, and Leslie is a member and representative of the Yandruwandha, and he also informs me that he traces heritage back to John King as well.

So he's a fundamental part of the story, and I would say that as a country we perhaps have not given sufficient weight to the fundamental role of the Yandruwandha in this story.

And it's equally a pleasure to welcome Brendan Wills, a descendent, a great-nephew times five of William Wills.

So to have the different sides of the story represented here is just tremendous.

And of course David Dodd from the Burke and Wills Historic Society. So to have such a group of people at this moment is tremendous.

I really want to say two things briefly, and then I'll call on other before make our announcement at the end.

One is about the National Heritage List. As of this moment we have 103 properties and sites on the National Heritage List.

It was conceived of by David Kemp, and was brought into being on his watch and I think that really set up heritage within Australia.

David our task now is, through the heritage strategy, to bring forward a national lottery, I think to put heritage funding on the same basis as it is in Western Australia and the UK, and we're getting support for that from around the country and bipartisan support within Canberra.

I think that would be a multi-generational contribution. But we're recognising the best of the best, and we're being selective in bringing forward those names and places which are added to the list.

And then I want to say a few brief words about the Burke and Wills expedition.

This is the most informed group in the country on the Burke and Wills expedition [inaudible] - the history is well known.

It's a combination of grand vision, grand execution, misjudgement, tragedy, but also great achievement.

And those things together represent the reason why this is such a fundamental part of Australian, and in particular, Victorian history.

It was an expedition conceived with opening up the interior, with finding a route through to the Gulf of Carpentaria, potentially laying the basis for an overland telegraph, and there was some interstate rivalry as well - not surprising, nothing's changed.

So it's an incredible story.

The Dig Tree is perhaps the heart of it, it's this notion of sliding doors, of moments in history where everything changes.

And but for a few hours, history might have been very different.

But the grand conception of what occurred was of people opening up the interior, and I'm drawn to Tennyson’s Ulysses - to strive, to seek, but not to yield.

And indeed there was much of that in this story, coupled with tragedy and seven lives lost.

But this is the story that we all know, and it's wonderful to be able to celebrate it.

And I'm delighted to call on Bill Birch, the President of the Royal Society of Victoria.

BILL BIRCH: Thank you Minister. Distinguished guests, members of the Yandruwandha community.

I'm delighted to welcome you all to this historic room. As the Minister has pointed out, this is where Burke and Wills lay in state, the people of Melbourne came through and paid their respects.

It was pointed out to me that yesterday was the 153rd anniversary of the funeral of Burke and Wills, so this is quite an appropriate occasion.

And it's the - we call it the Burke and Wills Room, and it's the centre of our activities here at the society.

I want to just briefly start off with a quote, which I found when I was doing some research recently.

It was from a geologist hero of mine, who's George - he was a German-born scientists around at the time of the expedition, his name was George Ulrich.

And he wrote a letter in November 1861 to a geological colleague in Sydney, the Reverend Clarke, who was very famous.

And he said, ‘the sad occurrence has more its cause in wrong, yet at the same time quite excusable, reasoning and unlucky incidence than in real neglect on the part of anyone. People are in such circumstances only too apt to judge my results, forgetting the connecting chain of circumstances from which the former arose’.

And I rather like that quote, because I think it provided a balanced view of what the expedition had actually resulted in.

There were two other German scientists, German-born scientists, Becker and Beckler, who participated, were selectors, members of the expedition by the Royal Society of Victoria's Exploration Committee.

Ulrich might have offered his services, and had he been chosen he would have done some wonderful geological observations. But on the other hand, he may not have survived.

The Victorian Exploration Committee was actually established by the Philosophical Institute late in 1857, but by the time the expedition set off, after all the planning and the selecting of the people, it was under the auspices of the Royal Society, because we'd received our royal assent late in 1859.

Now the Institute was very keen for the pursuit of science to be the expedition's highest priority.

There were political considerations as well of course, but they wanted - the institute wanted the expedition to seek information on the meteorology, the mineralogy, the flora and the fauna of the central deserts of Australia.

Given the tragic circumstances that befell the expedition's leaders, of course to most Australians ever since the Burke and Wills saga has been portrayed as one of tragedy and incompetence - albeit heroic - rather than one of scientific importance.

And I think that's an impression that the Royal Society probably, up until recently, has probably not done enough to counter.

But a year or so ago, just before the 150th anniversary of the expedition's departure, members of the society conceived the idea of hunting down all the scientific observations that had been made and assembling them.

Doug McCann and Bernie Joyce, who are here today, established a team of researchers and they collated all this information and the result was a substantial book published in 2010 on the scientific legacy of that - of the Victorian Exploration Committee and the resulting expedition.

So I think we can now cast that expedition into an entirely new light, so much so that the Royal Society can be very proud of its role in organising one of the country's greatest feats of exploration.

And I'd just like to present the Minister with a copy of the book.

Hopefully you can get some pleasure out it.

GREG HUNT: I will,


Okay. Thanks a lot everybody, and enjoy the rest of the celebration.

GREG HUNT: Thanks very much Bill, and the society has been the custodian of so much knowledge, and a generator and driver of so much of the knowledge that has helped drive forward Victoria and Australia.

And to our authors thank you very much. Not just authors - historic sleuths.

Now, I am really privileged and delighted to be able to invite Leslie Harris to the podium.

Leslie is a member of and representative of the Yandruwandha. I think he came from Katherine, is that right? And so he's made a very significant trip to be here.

The Yandruwandha's role has not been as well recorded or celebrated as perhaps it could and should have been, and we are addressing that in small measure today.

You are fundamental to the story and the assistance given along the way, in particular of course to King.

And Leslie has not just a connection between with the Yandruwandha, but he's informed me also he is descended perhaps - I don't know whether it's five or six generations - six generations from King. So it's a real privilege Leslie to invite you to the podium.

LESLIE HARRIS: I don't know too much about Burke and Wills.

During my family history research, I did come across a lot of information that suggests that my grandmother was a descendent of John King, and through our verbal history that my sixth great grandmother Maggie [inaudible] was the woman who actually nursed John King on the river.

It's been well known in our verbal history, passed from generation to generation.

Trying to find those links in European records and documentation throughout history, to try to prove my family tree, fell back as far as that.

It has been a major difficulty, and I've had to rely on the verbal histories of other European [inaudible].

And my uncle just recently met Lord John Alderdice, descended of King himself as well, I think it was his great nephew or something from memory, and the verbal histories that they shared together on that brief meeting were matched.

The verbal histories that his family knows matched the verbal histories with our family, and included in that was the fact that John King did leave behind a daughter.

My great, great grandmother, fifth time, Annie fell pregnant to John King in 1861 I think it was, and they had the first reported half-caste girl, Alice, and she went by Alice King for many years, or Big Alice.

She worked in the Congreve house for many years, raised the Congreve children, and that's how come the Congreve’s verbal history is also very important to us, and collaborating those histories together verifies everything we've always known in our verbal history.

Very happy to be here, pleased that I was invited. As a descendent of the Yandruwandha people, getting the Yandruwandha people recognised for the good deeds that they did trying to look after Burke and Wills, regardless of them trying to shoo them off constantly and shooting at the sky to tell them to go away.

You know, providing them with [inaudible] and trying to keep them alive. Unfortunately Burke and Wills passed away, John King was nursed back to health by my family. So I'm very proud to be here.

And yeah, the recognition throughout history, it has been there. I think it's been forgotten a few times along the way [inaudible].

But yes, I'm glad to meet other descendants of the expedition and the Wills family, and I'm happy to be here. Thank you.

GREG HUNT: Thanks very much Leslie. To have you here is tremendous, and to hear that story as you say with strands from both sides of the history is really powerful.

I think everybody should be very proud of it. Now, I'm also delighted to have Brendan Wills here - he is I think a fifth great nephew of William Wills.

He traces back to a fundamental part of Victorian history. So on behalf of the expeditioners, if I could invite Brendan to the podium.

BRENDAN WILLS: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Yeah, thank you. I've been involved in the - well, working with this sort of story for the last five or so years thanks to David Dodd, and it's always been a constant source of pride with our family, and an honour, really, to be related to [inaudible].

Yeah, it's probably the proudest thing, especially for my grandfather who is still with us, it's the greatest thing he's involved with.

It's great to actually - to meet a Yandruwandha person, and to acknowledge the work that your people did for my relatives and the expedition at the time.

Had it been different, had they maybe listened, or not been so pig-headed, yeah so it could’ve changed [inaudible].

And the story is unique [inaudible] but it is certainly great to meet someone 150 years on from both sides of that, so that's fantastic.

It's - yeah, I don't have a great deal to say because I sort of said it in the past, but it is a privilege and an honour, and it's great that this story still being spoken so many years later.

And hopefully future generations continue to hear the story that's told properly, and yeah correctly - and acknowledged correctly.

And yeah, thank you for inviting me today, it's good to be here. Cheers.

GREG HUNT: So let me come to the formal announcement.

I am delighted to announce that the Burke and Wills sites on the Coopers Creek will become the 104th inscription on the National Heritage List.

And what does that mean? It means that they are recognised as a fundamental part of Australian history.

It's the Wills site, it's the Dig Tree, it's Coopers Creek, and the engagement of the expeditioners - the tragedy of the Dig Tree - and just a few hours in history which could've made all the difference.

But the fundamental story hasn't been lost - for any debate about decisions, for any debate about conduct, at the end of the day there was extraordinary courage, there was, as the society has shown, great geographic surveying work, most of which of course goes [inaudible] back to your heritage, great generosity, and then an extraordinary scientific part of Victorian history. It also gave us the institution of the Royal Commission.

And it's a tremendous part of Australian history. So, I am delighted that the Burke and Wills sites that are on Coopers Creek, which is really only just over half way to the Gulf of Carpentaria - we think of it as being very north but it's just over half way, so what they did from there was an extraordinary achievement.

But I'm delighted that the Burke and Wills site has now being added as the 104th inscription on the National Heritage List.

Thank you.